Currently Reading Into: Zen, Gumption, Quality, and Motorcycle Maintenance

Somehow last summer I found myself in the thick central highlands of Vietnam attempting to fix a vacuum leak on my rented Honda CR125. I was a couple of clicks up the now quasi-paved Ho Chi Minh Trail, Creedence Clearwater Revival still vibrating through a pair of loose earbuds back and forth between my ear canal and the expanded polystyrene foam of my helmet, I was trekking, exploring—G.I. cosplaying?—and amidst it all, I seemed to have forced myself to forget that I was on a greasy machine with precarious parts which carried me through this momentary spiritual and adventurous defining of my life.

The extra air was introduced into the fuel-air mix from the carburetors, leaning out the mixture and causing a steady drip between the cylinder head and the carburetor slide (a.k.a. the butterfly). However, then, I did not know this, I simply stalled the machine as it came to a putt-putting stop next to a herd of water buffalo with indifferent stares and swinging tails. As Robert M. Pirsig says, I was overcome by an “egoless acceptance of stuckness”. However, and to my good fortune and privilege, my uncle, the Phaedrus and powerhouse mechanic of our trip, had all the parts and expertise to keep us on our way. He replaced the gas line and cleaned the washers in the carburetor slide with a manly blow and belch. This seemed to do the trick and we got back on schedule, dodging the “chicken mines” that littered the road, and adjusting the volume of whatever psychedelic rock tune to be just above the sound of the RPMs as we shifted gears. As the day went on and we began to engine break cruise down the Marble Mountains into downtown Da Nang, my Uncle shouted through the vrooming and whooshing,

“I got a book I think you should read! It’s about dirtbikes, Buddhism, and philosophy!”

All my favorite things.

He gave me a copy, and I decided to finally give it a go right before I head back to the ‘Nam. This time for a solo motorcycle venture.

I’ll save this from turning into a travel blog. Mostly, because this is not my story nor a place to present my own philosophical and ontological pontifications. These are the words of Robert M. Pirsig, found in the yellowed pages of my first edition copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. As the title of this series suggests, I am not yet finished with the novel as I am still highlighting the elaborate syntax and—in some cases—”philograpahics” that Pirsig uses to explain each of his “Chautauquas”. Nevertheless, this seems like a liminal moment to embark on an “in-the-moment-yet-not-knowing-for-sure” position to give a partial book review or simply a  “so far so good” account. Maybe this is subject to change and therefore an appropriate update or redaction will attempt to erase away the ignorance of the unforeseen. Or this piece may simply come to fruition as a mere documentation of the results of implementing nuanced pearls of wisdom from a quasi-popular philosophical fiction book forty-nine years too late.

Quality and Gumption

In the novel (so far), Pirsig speaks through a forty-year-old man who writes technical manuals for a living and recounts the history and philosophical epiphanies of his former consciousness, Phaedrus, who was subjected to electroshock therapy after a mental breakdown. Following the therapy, Phaedrus’s consciousness shifted to that of the narrator. As the narrator attempts to piece together Phaedrus’s intellectual history, he parallels it with a narrative of the trip he and his son Chris take across the United States…on motorcycles of course.

Through a series of direct talks he calls Chautauquas, The narrator expounds on Phaedrus’ developed philosophy of “Quality”, drawing a parallel to motorcycle maintenance as an apt metaphor to exemplify its practical application. This Quality is essentially a reconfiguration of the subject/object duality that often dominates Western thought, Pirsig suggesting something close to Toaism, but less monistic and with less religious overtones.

Here, it seems that Pirsig wants us to infuse a pragmatic and robust way of understanding the world with a single-personified cleric that has features similar to both that of Lao Tzu and Henry Thoreau.

I can dig it, but I can’t tell if I must accept the world and all its components, attempt to see every part of the world, or fall into it and live every action deliberately. As of now, I assume Pirsig wants us to fully encounter our faith or in his case “gumption”, the “reservoir of good spirits”.

As I pack my rucksack and touch up on the mechanic jargon, I think of what Pirsig sees as the mitochondrial substance of life,

“Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in the whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.”


Coby Hobbs is an Audere Magazine contributor and editor.

Feature image by Coby Hobbs.